Conceived and Directed by Tina Satter
Broadway, Verbatim Play
Runs through 11.27.21
Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street
by Dan Dinero on 10.25.21
(L-R) Becca Blackwell, Will Cobbs, Pete Simpson, and Emily Davis in Is This a Room. Photo by Chad Batka.
BOTTOM LINE: The inspired pairing of Is This A Room and Dana H. is the definition of “can’t-miss” theatre. See both while you can.
All you really need to know about Is This A Room is printed in the Playbill, and spoken aloud right before the play begins: on June 3, 2017, Reality Winner, an Air Force intelligence specialist, was visited by the FBI. Is This A Room stages the word-for-word transcription of this visit. And honestly, to know much more about the story (who Reality is, why the FBI wanted to talk to her, what happened afterwards) provides a sense of resolution that takes the edge off of the nervous tension director Tina Satter so deftly creates right from lights up. Go in cold if you can, and read up on the events afterward.
It seems that Reality (the incredible Emily Davis) doesn’t know what’s occasioning this visit by the FBI, but she clearly understands the stakes. Initially concerned more about her groceries and tomorrow’s yoga class, she is repeatedly torn between the all-too-human desire to connect with these agents on a professional level (as fellow members of the intelligence community, they all speak the same lingo) and the recurring reminder that she is definitely not the one in control. While the two named agents, Garrick (Pete Simpson) and Taylor (Will Cobbs) play good cop-bad cop, another unnamed male (downtown stalwart Becca Blackwell) blunders about, interjecting with odd, even random, questions.
Witnessing every word of this real-life transcript—with all the uhs and ums—may well be something of a revelation, especially if your only experiences with interrogations have been those on Law and Order. The ways in which the agents veer back and forth between casual chatter and a sudden yelled command is chilling. While the company is faithful to each and every word in the transcript, they’ve had to devise everything else – not just the blocking, but the pacing and rhythm of the interactions. Whenever they get to a redacted portion of the text, Satter brings in lighting effects (Thomas Dunn) and sound cues (Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada), which contribute to the disorientating nature of the piece. This combination of stagecraft and hyper-realism is verbatim theatre at its best.
But it’s the unforgettable Emily Davis who is the emotional center of this piece. As 25-year-old Reality, she is heart-breaking from her first panicked questions about making sure her dog and cat will be okay while she is being questioned. Notably, she never once asks for a lawyer, nor is she read her rights (I imagine because she is only being questioned, not arrested). Reality really thinks of herself as not just a good person, but a good citizen, and watching the FBI agents use her own desire to cooperate against her is simply gutting.
One of the interesting aspects about using redacted text is that specifics about the nature of the information in question is consistently blacked out (if you’re curious, Reality’s actions led to this story.) And while a postscript recording provides more about where Reality is now (see also this), Is This A Room avoids the impetus to “fill in the gaps,” and in doing so, foregoes making any moral judgments about what happened. It’s a smart decision, allowing audience members the opportunity to experience this encounter without all of the geopolitical baggage that comes with knowing more. (Which is not to say you won’t have opinions—trust me, you will have opinions.)
The inspired conceit (of lead producers Dori Berinstein, Sally Horchow, and Matt Ross) to pair Is This A Room alongside Dana H. no doubt helped both shows come to Broadway (it’s hard to imagine either one would have been staged on its own). These two shows share more than just a stage—each uses verbatim source material (Dana H. uses original interviews), and each revolves around a truly unforgettable lead performance (both of which are obvious contenders come awards time). But while these two plays were originally slated to play into 2022, they will now be closing in mid-November. Please, see them both. You will be glad you did.
(Is This A Room plays at the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, through November 27, 2021. The running time is 65 minutes. Proof of vaccination and masks required. The play runs in rep with Dana H.; specific performance times vary. Performances (of one show or the other) are Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays at 2 and 8, Thursdays and Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $39 - $149; $35 rush tickets are available. For tickets visit telecharge.com. For more information visit thelyceumplays.com.)
Is This A Room is directed by Tina Satter. Scenic Design by Parker Lutz. Costume Design by Enver Chakartash. Lighting Design by Thomas Dunn. Sound Design by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada. Original Music by Sanae Yamada. Puppet Design by Amanda Villalobos. Production Stage Manager is Lisa Iacucci. Associate Director is Randi Rivera.
The cast is Emily Davis, Becca Blackwell, Will Cobbs, and Pete Simpson. Understudies are Duane Cooper, Joe Lanza, and Katherine Romans.